When disaster strikes, it doesn't take long for images of suffering to span the globe -- not to mention the appeals for help. If you want to help but aren't sure how or whom to contact, we've got the answers.

What is the best way to donate?

Talk to any government or aid organization and they will tell you the same thing: The best way to help is to donate money to an experienced humanitarian organization.

Why? In simplest terms, it's the fastest and most efficient way to get help to those who need it most. An experienced organization is better able to assess the needs of victims and find the most cost-effective means to purchase and distribute essential items like food, water and medicine. In many cases supplies can be purchased locally at a lower cost, which supports the affected economy as well as helping your cash go farther.

In contrast, donated goods such as clothing and food may not be appropriate for the climate or culture, and the costs of sorting, shipping and distributing them can be high. Add in concerns about fumigation (like bed bugs) and import regulations and it's not hard to see how supply lines can get clogged. Some items could end up turned away at the border.

Donating goods can be an effective strategy when the crisis is close to you or there are calls for specific items for a devastated area. For example, your used clothing may not be appropriate for a victim of a cyclone in Asia, but may be welcomed by the victim of a fire or flood in your area. Collected items can also be sold through a community garage sale or auction with the proceeds going to charity.

Donating your time is another option. While it may be tempting to hop on a plane, an influx of untrained volunteers won't help the situation. A volunteer vacation is best undertaken once the initial crisis has passed and rebuilding efforts are well underway. Hard hit areas usually will require ongoing support in the months and years ahead.

Instead, think about what you can do from home. Local groups are often looking for people to help with fundraising efforts and programs.

Donor beware

Unfortunately, there are always people eager to turn hardship into their own gain, and many well-intended donations end up in criminals' pockets.  There were a multitude of scammers targeting generous donors following Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the earthquake in Haiti, for instance.

How can you make sure your money gets to those who need it? Make sure the organization is trustworthy before you donate. Avoid crooks by watching for suspicious behaviour -- such as high-pressure tactics, overly emotional appeals, lack of details about the program or assistance provided, offers to send a courier to pick up your donation and reluctance to answer your questions. Phone calls, emails and fraudulent websites are also a concern -- especially since con-artists often use similar sounding names to real organizations and have official-looking websites.

Some of the latest scams even involve new technology, like texting, Twitter and even Facebook pranks. Crooks are counting on the ease and convenience of these methods -- and hoping people will donate without looking too closely at the con.

When in doubt, contact a reputable charity directly to make your contribution rather than responding to a questionable solicitation. Look up its contact information through an independent resource such as a government website, phone book or 411.ca.

Where to donate

When in doubt, stick to organizations you know and trust -- and who have a proven track record handling disasters -- like the Red Cross, World Vision, Plan International (Plan Canada) and UNICEF (to name a few). The Canadian government has a list of organizations and their contact information available here. The Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance has reports on charities across Canada and the U.S. where you can find more information about programs. (Other governments have their own lists and advice available through their websites too.)

Many private companies and community organizations also raise money for relief efforts on behalf of humanitarian organizations. Before you give, try to find out exactly where the money ends up and make sure there aren't any hidden fees that could eat into your contribution. For instance, text donations via your mobile phone might be subject to a fee through your service provider. If you're donating to an international organization, make sure you get your country's representative in order to avoid currency exchange fees.

Also, beware that a hefty portion of your donation could go towards fundraising if the organization uses professional fundraising services.

If you want to donate online, make sure the website is secure and belongs to a legitimate organization. Any suspicious page titles, URL strings, spelling or grammatical errors could tip you off to a fraud. If you're donating through your mobile phone, be sure to double check the number first. (For more information on how to avoid fraud, check out Good cause or costly scam?)

In some cases, sanctions against a country may limit what type of aid is permitted or who can provide it. For example, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) required a special permit to provide relief in Myanmar following the cyclone. Other groups without the permit inevitably met obstacles that affected their ability to help. When sanctions or politics are involved, you can find a list of approved charities on your government's website.

Think long term

As previously noted, funding and aid may be required for months or even years after a disaster has passed. The effects on natural resources and the local economy can continue long after the media attention tapers off. You may want to follow up with a second donation six months later or consider disaster relief in your long term giving strategy.

Other crises such as ongoing political violence and drought often get less attention than large-scale natural disasters but are no less important when it comes to donations. For more information about current crises and relief efforts, see the United Nation's ReliefWeb website.

Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada: How Canadians Can Help
BBB: Charitable Donor Contributions Tips
USAID Disaster Assistance - How Can I Help?

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ youding xie

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Elizabeth Rogers